"An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself." - Charles Dickens

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Charles John Huffam Dickens (February 7, 1812-June 9, 1870) was an English author and social critic who is widely regarded as the most important novelist of the Victorian period. Dickens was a strong supporter of children's rights, and his novels often centered around idealistic young heroes pitted against grave situations. His most notable works include Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, Charles Copperfield. Bleak House, a Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations.

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Charles Dickens, by Daniel Maclise

While his father was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, Charles Dickens' early life was comfortable and idyllic, although, like so many of his characters, Dickens later described himself as a "very small and not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy." However, Charles' father John eventually experienced financial difficulties and was thrown into debtor's prison in Marshalsea. John's wife and youngest children eventually joined him, as was the custom, and Charles was sent to board with a family friend who became the inspiration for Mrs Pipchin in Dombey and Son. Dickens was forced to work ten-hour days at a boot-blacking factory to help support his family, an experience which made him acutely aware of the cruel working conditions faced by the poor.

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Coming home from Church by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). Illustration for Dickens's Dombey and Son. Image scan, caption, and commentary by Philip V. Allingham, via the Victorian Web

After gaining a small inheritance, John Dickens was able to pay off his debt and get released from prison. However, his wife Elizabeth did not immediately remove Charles from his grueling job, and this left a lasting impression on the author. "I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back."

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Dickens in the shoe-blacking factory, illustrated by Fred Bernard and published in Life of Dickens

Dickens worked briefly as a junior clerk at the law office of Ellis and Blackmore, and then tried his hand at freelance reporting. His access to Doctor's Commons, a society of lawyers in London, provided ample insight into the unfair pitfalls of the legal system. This crucial time influenced works such as Nicholas Nickelby, Dombey and Son, and Bleak House. 

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Dickens' Dream by Robert William Busolivertwist

Then unclear of what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, Dickens began to delve into journalism, writing periodicals for magazines. His installments would eventually become his novels The Pickwick Papers, which became so popular that it had bootleg copies and,Oliver Twist, which was the first Victorian novel with a child protagonist. 

Dickens married Catherine Thomson Hogarth in 1836, and they went on to have ten children. Dickens was quite close to his wife's young sister, Mary, who died in his arms after a brief illness. Dickens is thought to have drawn upon memories of Mary for characters like Little Nell and Rose Maylie.

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Dickens embarked on his first visit to the United States in 1842, lecturing in New York about international copyright  law and the piracy of his popular novels. Dickens then traveled to Italy and Switzerland and began work on Dombey and Son and David Copperfield

Dickens also set up a home for fallen women, "Urania Cottage" with the sponsorship of a banking heiress. Women who left Urania Cottage were expected to be on track for emigration and marriage. Dickens also became deeply involved in the Great Ormond Street Hospital, for which he raised money by doing public readings. These were enormously popular and were enough to bring the hospital back from financial peril.

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"Charles Dickens as he appears when reading." Wood engraving from Harper's Weekly,               7 December 1867

Unthinkable for the era, Dickens caused quite a scandal when he chose to leave his wife for an actress who was appearing in one of his plays. Dickens was 45 and Ellen Ternan was 18. The author continued to write extensively and to give several reading tours, traveling throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland to give theatrical readings. Toward the end of his life, Dickens gave a series of "farewell readings" which included nearly a hundred separate events. His last public appearance was at a banquet honoring his friend, the illustrator Daniel Maclise, and included the Prince and Princess of Wales. 

Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Friday, 07 February 2014
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